Politics / Social issues

Stolen Sisters: Honouring the Life of Loretta Saunders


It was as though the sun had come out just for Loretta.

I gazed out, silently contemplative, as the snow and wind beat against my window.  Only an hour before, the sun had shone brightly, warming frozen tears on the cheeks of those who had come to Parliament Hill to keep vigil for Loretta Saunders and to demand justice for hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada.

Tears of rage for Loretta.  Disbelief and devastation at the news that she had been found on the side of a snowy highway.  Drummers beat their drums, chanting, theirs song of anguish calling on their ancestors to join us in grief.  Tobacco ties, left on a banner for Loretta’s family, to be burned in the hopes that our prayers would be carried to the Creator.

Another bright, young light snuffed out by violence.  A young woman, poised to become a leader and voice for her community, silenced.

And as NDP MP Nikki Ashton rose to speak in the House of Commons, she reminded us: “The same week Loretta Saunders died, six more aboriginal women went missing.”

Darryl Leroux, Loretta’s thesis supervisor, writes:

“It’s our doing, which Loretta articulated so clearly in her writing – theft of land base, legalized segregation and racism, residential schools for several generations, continued dispossession = social chaos.… Through trickery and deceit, we convince our children that indigenous peoples are to blame for their condition, that through no fault of our own, they simply don’t understand how to live well in society.”

The stories we tell were written and entrenched by generations of Canadian governments intent on colonizing Aboriginal peoples. This is, after all, the country whose governments have built its railways on the backs of the Chinese, enacted laws that prevented French Canadians from attending schools in their language, and interned the Japanese during the Second World War.

The stories we tell have allowed us to indulge in the fallacy and vanity that reserves are run by corrupt leaders whose commitment to their people is suspect, as though our own political leaders weren’t puffing crack-cocaine, being brought to court on charges of influence peddling, colluding with the mafia, or short-changing sex-workers.

Honouring Loretta Saunders, and all missing and murdered aboriginal women
The Stolen Sisters Facebook avatar, by First Nations Métis artist Aaron Paquette (www.aaronpaquette.net)

Our stories regurgitate the tired stereotypes of the ‘drunken Indian,’ the ‘Savage’ who flouts the rule-of-law with blockades, failing to add that these protests are often aimed at protecting their communities’ economic future, environmental assets, and traditional lands.  And earlier this week, to raise awareness of their stolen sisters.

We cheat our children by lie of omission, failing to explain that we committed cultural genocide by creating residential schools that aimed to ‘kill the Indian in the child.’  Residential schools where children were beaten for speaking their mother-tongue, and where girls were beaten and shamed for having their period.  Where sexual, psychological, and physical abuse were rampant.

Through willful negligence, we have ignored the Indian Act, which turned the fruit of Aboriginal women’s wombs into battlegrounds of conditional citizenship.  That an Aboriginal woman who ‘married out’ was stripped of her status.  That an abandoned or widowed Aboriginal was forcibly ‘enfranchised,’ that she lost her right to live on her husband’s reserve lands or benefit from his band’s resources.  That a child born out of wedlock, or to a ‘double-mother,’ was robbed of its birthright to lay claim to his or her culture.

Through ‘trickery and deceit,’ we have failed our Aboriginal sisters.  Although they represent only 3% of the population, Aboriginal women account for 10% of the victims of violent crime perpetrated on women.

As Nikki Ashton told the crowd gathered to mourn Loretta in Ottawa, if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.

And our inability to empathize has cost us the life of Loretta Saunders.

missing aboriginal women, loretta saunders
Illustration courtesy of The McGill Daily

It has cost us the lives of Kelly Morrisseau, 7-months pregnant, found stabbed and bleeding out in a Gatineau parking lot.  Kelly’s father died never knowing who murdered his daughter.  And it cost us Kelly’s aunt, Glenda Morrisseau, who was just 19 when she disappeared and was found murdered in Saint-Boniface.

It has cost us Helen Betty Osborne, Felicia Solomon, and Claudette Osborne – cousins from Manitoba.  Helen, “a soft-spoken teenage girl wearing sky-blue mittens who was killed with a screwdriver, 50 holes punctured through her hands, head and chest,” found in The Pas woods in 1971.  Sixteen-year old Felicia went missing from downtown Winnipeg in March 2003 – months later, her severed arm and leg were found in the Red River.  And in 2008, Claudette went missing after she left a message for her sister saying she was afraid and wanted to be picked up.  She has never been found.

It has cost us the countless, often faceless women of the Highway of Tears, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and Robert Pickton’s farm.

Loretta Saunders understood how deeply ingrained generations of state-sponsored racism and disinformation have created a world in which we can easily dismiss the lives of First Nations women.  A world in which First Nations women are robbed of their names, faces, and histories.

Loretta Saunders understood that the stories we tell ourselves are deeply rooted in a sinister subtext: the missing and murdered Aboriginal women chose to live their lives on the margins, chose to drink, chose to huff gas or smoke crack, and chose to sell their bodies.  And while, yes, Aboriginal men and women have the power to overcome personal circumstances, it is a narrative that negates a pattern of colonialism, systemic and institutional racism, poverty, discrimination, indifference, and violence.   It is a narrative that absolves us of our own responsibility – if not for the wrongs of the past, then for the women who are missing and murdered, and for their children.

ImageThe missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Renegade98

If Aboriginal women are living the ‘organized terror of the everyday,’ we have openly engaged in an organized tyranny of the everyday.  Through our inaction and indifference, we have allowed Canada to become a killing field soaked in the blood of Aboriginal women, and in the tears of those who love them.

But what if we stopped, and beyond taking a moment of silence to honour Loretta Saunders, we listened to the voices of Aboriginal men and women as they speak from the trenches of this ‘organized terror of the everyday?’

What if we listened to Claudette Osborne’s young son, who told his father that “when he grows up he wants to be a pilot, so he can fly over everything and find his mommy?”

What if we listened to Jason Mercredi (@thunderdrums75) who describes living in fear for his child: “I fear for my daughter in this country called #Canada I won’t live in fear and I won’t raise her to either. #RespectWomen #WeDeserveLife”

What if we joined Jarrett Martineau (@culturite) in his outrage, “There’s something wrong in Canada if aboriginal people have to live this fate.” And die by it. #LorettaSaunders

What if we joined Zoe Todd (@ZoeSTodd) and Gwitchin Kris (@GwitchinKris) as they condemn indifference, “A country that turns its back on hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women & their families is a very broken, very sick one.”


Carol-Ann Moses takes part in a rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, October 4, 2013 by the Native Women’s Assoiciation of Canada honouring the lives of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.
Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand

What if we empathized with @RedIndianGirl, Paul Seesequasis (‏@paulseesequa), and Robert Anson Smith, as they describe the fear of a daughter coming home late, “The thing about being an indigenous mother in this country; Everytime your daughter is a little late or delayed getting home there’s fear.”

What if we rewrote the story?

Let us part on these words by First Nations poet Lee Maracle, “To mangle our hearts with the vision of her pain.  Sweet grass and sage, smoke of the aged, carry her away.”

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3 thoughts on “Stolen Sisters: Honouring the Life of Loretta Saunders

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